PRINCE IS DEAD AT AGE 57!
( Last April 26 was the 5th anniversary of his death. Had he lived he would be 62 today. Mind boggling! Here’s some bits and pieces from the 2 blog posts, Strangers on The Stage and Purple Pain, both in Stage Hand category, that I wrote about working Prince Roger Nelson, aka the Symbol, the Slave, Skippy, and other names this eccentric genius dubbed himself; but to his fans and admirers he was and is PRINCE.
What shock! I first worked him 45+ years ago. Watched him grow from a self-assured teenager to a world famous Hall of Fame musician, singer, songwriter, actor, musical innovator and creator of a new genre of music. Always his own man, always stuck to his roots. Born and raised on the north side of Minneapolis, spent his adult life in his purple fenced home and recording studio, Paisley Park, a few miles from his first home and his youthful friends. (And made a lot of money for the stage hands in his area.)
His tours were some of the biggest on the road, and yet he gave concerts, some announced, some impromptu, for his fans at small familiar venues like First Avenue and Paisley Park. His roots. His fans.
He left behind a great legacy of music and memories for people all over the world. And even today his genius is springing out with ‘new’ works that was never made public before.
The first time I worked Prince was in the early 70’s. There was a benefit at the Orpheum and Prince Nelson was one of the many performers. There already had been a lot of buzz about this young talent. He was somewhere in the middle of the card. The acts that followed him, didn’t stand a chance. Everybody present, especially Prince, knew that this youngster could be Big Time.
(I stand corrected. I worked him when he earlier when he was studying classic ballet, on a grant, with MN Dance and he was a one of a multitude of little dancers in Loyce Holton’s NUTCRACKER.)
And it didn’t take him long to prove everybody right. Unlike the other Minnesota musical phenom, Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, who paid his dues working small coffee shops in Minneapolis and New York for years before he was recognized, Prince Nelson, a.k.a. Prince, hit the ground running. He released his debut album when he was only 20. Less than a year later, his second album went platinum. And unlike so many others born in ‘fly-over country’, Prince kept his base in his homeland, rather than moving to the glamour cities of the coasts. As a result he generated a lot of opportunities and wages for the locals.
I worked Prince in concerts, benefits, rehearsals, but the longest stint came with the PURPLE RAIN tour production tech in the fall of 84. Prince was at the top. His single, PURPLE RAIN, was arguably his best single. His album, PURPLE RAIN, was arguably his best album. And his movie, PURPLE RAIN, was his first movie and would turn out to be his best movie, not argument on that one. And he wanted the PURPLE RAIN tour to be his best.
The set would be one of the biggest ever to tour the arenas. It was the first one, that I know about, where the set was constructed downstage in the arena, while the lights and sound were being hung. Then the set was rolled by a very large crew to it’s proper position. It was two-tiered with plenty of ramps to dance on and had three scissor lifts to add to the excitement.
(I was local head carpenter from the first; and because the tour carpenter was busy working out the logistics of the coming tour, I was the local head carp even when we went into the St. Paul jurisdiction. I, and several of my favorite hands, sons and nephews, put up the complicated set in every move and worked all the rehearsals also. By the time the 4 weeks were up we knew more than the road carpenter concerning the set.)
To further enhance his tour, his second front act was Sheila E, another of his many protégés and one of his main squeezes at the time. Sheila E was already a much sought after percussionist with stints with names like Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross.
She also had the very sexist title of the best female drummer in the land. When Prince ‘discovered’ her, he got her a recording contract and wrote two songs for her to sing, THE GLAMOROUS LIFE, the title song of her first album, and THE BELLE OF ST. MARK, both of which cracked the charts.
His first front act was a girl trio, Apollonia 6, featuring Apollonia, his co-star in the PURPLE RAIN movie. It started out as a replacement for Vanity 6, when Vanity went out on her own. The trio’s act on the tour was short to begin with, and got shorter when Prince decided that Apollonia was pretty, but really couldn’t sing any better than she could act.
For me, the tour production was four weeks of long, long days. In the four weeks I might have had a full eight hours of sleep two or three times. Several times worked around the clock, once for 48 hours before I had a chance to sleep for a few hours on packing blankets. We started the production at the Met Sports Arena, then moved to the Minneapolis Auditorium, over to the St. Paul Civic Center, and finished out back at the Met. Big money, but a lot of hard work and a lot of pain. Although offered a job on the tour itself, I said no way and was elated when we shut the door on the last truck on the way to Detroit to begin the tour itself. Purple Rain. No! Purple pain – for a lot of us.
Prince himself got me good one day. I was walking in the circular hallway around the arena at the Met. All of a sudden I heard, ‘Stop! Watch out!’ Luckily, before I had a chance to turn and maybe get hurt worse, something hit me in the back of the legs. I was prevented from falling forward by a set of arms and legs. I fell backwards onto a road box.
‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Are you okay? I’m sorry!’ I looked up into the face of the apologizing Prince. I told him I was okay.
‘Good’, said a voice coming from beneath me. ‘But darn, you’re heavy.’ I looked around and saw the face of Sheila E. I had ended up sitting in her lap. Now it was my turn to apologize. I quickly got off her.
It seems that His Purpleness wanted to have some fun and got Sheila E to sit on the front of the road box. Then, head down, he pushed the box as fast as his short legs could pump. They rounded a curve – and there I was. Not too much damage to me, except a purple, naturally, bruise on the back of my legs. They turned the box around and laughingly continued their fun in the opposite direction. While I limped back down the hall.
(Prince was also a very good athlete in high school. I know he loved to play basketball. The net and stand was one of the first things that we put up at his rehearsals, He was always the shortest in games with anyone who wanted to play, but he was the best dribbler and a good shot.)
Prince laid down the law as regards the tour, he would not tolerate any drug use whatsoever. Musicians, roadies, security force, nobody. He refused to hire as one of his many body guards, ex wrestler, a future governor of MN, Jesse The Body Ventura because Jesse was reported to have a drug background while wrestling.
(Ironic that Prince would die of an overdose of pain pills, considering his hatred for drugs; but I know he must have had great pain in his older years. He never spared his body, leaping around the stage and even off of it during his performances. And certainly the incident that happened one night at a Purple Rain rehearsal, the one that I tell about in the cartoon below contributed a great deal to his future pain.)
Like I pointed out, the rehearsal for the tour took a lot out of people. Made them do things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t tired. Even Prince suffered because of rehearsal fatigue. Like the last week, a few days left to wrap up the rehearsal and take the show on the road…. But rather than me writing about it, the talented Joel Orf drew a cartoon of the incident that my alter ego, The Old Hand, related to him. That character in the hat is me wearing my ‘trademark hat’. (Click on it to enlarge.)
I was on my knees in a downstage wing paging a mic for Patti LaBelle. Her concerts were always very fine, except her set belonged in an arena, not a theater. Very crowded on stage. And since wireless mics were still unreliable, a stagehand was needed to page the cable to keep it from tangling in a set piece. You have to concentrate. For that reason I didn’t realize that there were people in the wing with me until they had me surrounded.
I saw a short pair of legs clad in tight purple pants. I didn’t have to even look up to know it was Prince.
The second pair of legs were much longer and much more interesting.. The right leg was clad in a conventional tight, but the left leg was naked up to the short shorts. I knew it was Sheila E. That quirky bit of wardrobe was designed especially by Prince for her.
The third pair were longer still. Both legs naked. The shorts, shorter still. The blouse so tight you could see, even in the darkness of the wing, there was no bra underneath. It was Kim Basinger.
Prince might have been short in stature, but he more than make up for it in self-confidence. Not many men would dare attend a concert with both an ex-girlfriend and a current girlfriend. Or maybe it was a current girlfriend and an about-to-be ex-girlfriend, maybe two current girlfriends.
But that was Prince, The Artist Formally Known as Prince, The Love Symbol. And for all I knew, Madonna, Carmen Electra, Vanity, etc., etc., etc., might all have been at Paisley Park waiting for the three of them to return so they could all ‘party like it it’s 1999‘.
A few of my memories of the little man, the giant musician.
His Purple Highness